Author: johnhawthorne

The 2020 Election: When Prophecy Fails

The November election was called by the election desks three weeks ago today. When all the dust settles on December 16, President-elect Biden will win 306 electoral votes to President Trump’s 232. Biden’s popular vote lead has now crested an astonishing six million votes. In the meantime, the Trump campaign has pursued a couple of recounts with minimal success (the Biden lead in Milwaukee actually increased) and a series of state and federal level lawsuits with virtually no success.

And yet, as numerous observers have noted, Trump supporters — especially of the evangelical celebrity class — continue to argue that the election will not only be overturned, but that Trump actually won in a landslide.

How can all these people (and potentially millions who support them) continue to believe this stuff? I suggested earlier this week that one answer can be found in When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Reiken, and Stanley Schacter. The book, written in 1956, was a field study of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

I re-read the book on Tuesday (only $0.99 on Kindle!) and was amazed at how helpful it was. Festinger had argued that having attitudes and behaviors that were in conflict created cognitive dissonance, a state of discomfort. There were several ways to resolve the dissonance: change the conflicting behavior/attitude, reduce the salience of the offending attitude, or add some new element to the mix that resolved the dissonance.

When Prophecy Fails (hereafter WPF) describes a real-life test of cognitive dissonance theory that seemingly dropped into the authors’ laps. In September of 1954, a group in Lake City (Chicago) with assistance from others in Collegeville (Lansing) announced that they had received word that a major cataclysm was going to occur that coming December 21. Massive earthquakes would result in flooding that would swamp most of central North America. Festinger and his co-authors, along with some other informants, joined the group in November and stayed in contact through December. [There are some interesting questions about the ethics of joining the group. By surreptitiously becoming a part, they may have added self-perceived legitimacy to the group members.]

A predicted cataclysm was exactly the kind of disconfirmation that would produce cognitive dissonance. All of the activity surrounding the system of belief — readings, meetings, messages from outer space, plans for the group’s rescue via flying saucer — would be put at risk if things didn’t come to pass. How would they resolve such a crisis of faith?

Now what is the effect of the disconfirmation, of the unequivocal fact that the prediction was wrong, upon the believer? The disconfirmation introduces an important and painful dissonance. The fact that the predicted events did not occur is dissonant with continuing to believe both the prediction and the remainder of the ideology of which the prediction was the central item. The failure of the prediction is also dissonant with all the actions that the believer took in preparation for its fulfillment. The magnitude of the dissonance will, of course, depend on the importance of the belief to the individual and on the magnitude of his preparatory activity (20).

But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. … If the proselyting proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it (21).

The leaders of the group (the authors call them Marion Keech and Thomas Armstrong) had long been religiously eclectic. They had been studying scientology, reincarnation, UFO sightings, seances, receiving involuntary writings, and more. (This is consistent with other sociological models on conversion to marginal religious groups.) Given their sources of information, the notion that a messenger named Sanandra from the planet Clarion would warn them of God’s plan for the coming cataclysm and then prepare them for their rescue would not be met with the levels of skepticism one might expect.

There are series of disconfirming events: the UFO’s don’t come, there is uncertainty about visitors who may or not from outer space, and finally, there are no earthquakes. But following this final disconfirming event, they make themselves more available to visitors and the press (including a public invitation to Christmas caroling), willing to explain their theoretical system to anyone who would listen. At least that’s how it worked for the True Believers — more fringe members simply drifted away.

On December 21 alone, Dr. Armstrong and Mrs. Keech made five tape recordings for radio broadcast. Within the next three days, Marian’s messages were used as reasons for drawing up new press releases and lifting the ban on photographers. Twice more the press was called in and their reception was warm and friendly. Reporters were granted extensive interviews and photographers welcomed (151).

There is much in WPF that has parallels to our current moment after the election results were known. First, there is a focus on self-confirming information sources (OANN) with access to unique information only known to the insiders (Q Anon conspiracies). Those certain of a massive Trump victory could support their predictions by pointing to esoteric knowledge (Jeff Sharlet recently argued it is a new Gnosticism) that gave them better insights. From Paula White calling on African Angels to belief in the Shy Trump Voters, forces were in play to provide a Trump victory in spite of what polls said.

Public relations events are part of this mythology. Trump Rallies with thousands supposedly turned away, Trump Truck Parades, Boat Parades, could all be used to assert an undeniable force of support. It’s no surprise that Rudy Giuliani’s favorite tactic is to call a press conference or a “hearing” to use selected media to repeat claims he can’t legally make in court.

Belief in the disaster of massive voter fraud through mail-in balloting was rampant among the True Believers (even if many of them voted absentee). The massive fraud was assumed as a force to be defeated. This is buttressed by the inclusion of affidavits which claim process issues like where observers could stand or how someone was treated. They aren’t fraud but with all of these loose threads, there must be a major story here. (insert old joke about a Christmas pony here).

Those evangelical leaders who had positioned themselves so strongly as Trump supporters didn’t have a way to eliminate their dissonance. The disconfirmation of the loss was too great (contrasted with the transactional support for Trump over judges). They haven’t simply supported a preferred candidate but have argued that the alternative would end society as we know it. They drew on their religious bona fides to buttress their argument and now they can’t back down without putting those at risk. (Just ask those evangelical leaders what happened on social media when they suggested Biden won!)

Increased proselytization comes as Sidney Powell spins wider and wilder theories asserting that the algorithms in voting machine, created by foreign dictators and supported by Republican leaders across the country had actually turned a Trump victory into a supposed Biden win. That argument eventually became too much for the Trump Campaign and she was cut loose (unless you’re a True Believer and then this was part of the plan all along).

But a milder version of the belief system continues regardless of disconfirmation. Surely, as Eric Trump argued, something is amiss if Biden could get all those votes when he didn’t leave his basement! Which is, of course, the way in which these closed information loops work.

What happens to these True Believers after Inauguration Day is an open-ended question. In all likelihood, they will continue undeterred in their belief that the election was stolen from them because that’s what they’ve been told for so long.

At the end of WPF, Marion Kreech and Dr. Armstrong were both threatened with involuntary commitment and left the midwest. While continuing to speak to fringe groups (probably at the kinds of hotels Rudy holds hearings at), they eventually disappear from the scene.

Of course, as long as there is OANN and Newsmax (Fox is so passe), there will be places for Trump and Giuliani and Ellis and Powell to tell their stories. And there will be a ready group of listeners who are already predisposed to believe them.

Festinger and colleagues would argue that the group of listeners would shrink over time. They found that the central figures of UFO group took the move into more active proselytizing. Yet the more fringe members simply faded into the background and tried not to bring up their involvement at Christmas parties.

We’ll need to revisit the situation next November to see if the fringe falls away as life returns to some version of normal. But I expect the True Believers will remain for years to come.

“What Do We Do Now?” — Stacy Abrams and the work before us

As a political junkie, I love movies about politics. Dave is my all time favorite and I’m still a sucker for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But I often find myself thinking about 1972’s The Candidate. In that movie, which won an Oscar for best screenplay, Robert Redford plays an upstart candidate for Senate from California running against a long-term establishment incumbent. It tracks the ins and outs of his improbable campaign, managed by the inimitable Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein and Everybody Loves Raymond). At the end of the film, Redford’s candidate prevails. In the very final scene, Redford turns to Boyle and asks, “What Do We Do Now?”

This scene is central to my thinking that governing is more important than campaigning. The nuts and bolts of consensus building far outstrip the enthusiasm we have for election contests. Given yesterday’s court decision in Pennsylvania, we may be finally approaching the end of this election cycle (regardless of what now-former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell claims). Yes, there are still the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, but it’s time to think about what’s next.

Last week I finished listening to Stacey Abrams’ Our Time is Now. It is a primer on the key issues in extending the vote to underserved populations and combatting attempts at voter suppression. Her organizing, along with that of similar organizations across Georgia, was key to Biden’s victory in the state.

Following Abrams’ lead, there is much work for progressives to do in the coming twelve months. Republicans are already talking about investigating mail-in ballot processes in their quixotic search for their elusive voter fraud. Unless there is concerted effort to set some guidelines for how those ballots are processed, claims like those we’ve seen over the last three weeks will continue. States like Oregon, Colorado, and California need to be the models for how these ballots are processed as they have been using these processes for years.

Whether voting by mail or voting in person, we need to carefully distinguish between simple challenges to process (signature challenges, new address, failure to sign the envelope, voting at the wrong precinct) from invalid votes. Characterizing these errors as potential fraud is simply attempted voter suppression. Curing ballots is a fair process and should be easily available. Voting isn’t some trap where if you don’t get everything exactly right you get disenfranchised. Our default position should be to make it as easy to legally vote as possible.

In that regard, there need to be major changes in the availability of polling locations. Some consideration of a ratio of population distribution to the number of voting sites is essential. Texas’ idea of having one drop box per county is problematic for those in big cities (population) and those in big counties (geography). The goal must be to make access to voting simpler.

If states are going to rely on voter identification through driver’s licenses or other official cards, they need to consider those urban dwellers who don’t drive or the elderly who no longer drive. If photo IDs are not made readily available to all potential voters, then some other forms of identification should be allowed (multiple pieces of mail from government sources, for example).

We need to rethink how we process ballots when they arrive. It’s clear from the recent election that laws allowing mail-in ballots to be treated as early voting and processed (but not counted) prior to election day are reasonable. Not allowing votes to be counted until after the polls close is what created the crazy (yet predicted) scenario this cycle. We also need to clarify the roles of election judges, poll watchers, and partisan observers. The observers are there to represent their party but it is the judges and the poll watchers (who also represent the parties) who evaluate the quality of the ballots.

Of course, when there is actual fraud it needs to be prosecuted. Not on the basis of someone’s imagination, but real cases like the two cases uncovered in Pennsylvania: one who tried to vote using his dead mother’s ballot and another who tried to pass himself off as his son at the poll when he had already voted (both Republicans). If there is fraud via mail-in ballots, it must be proven and not asserted.

There should probably be some limits place on when and under what circumstances elections can be challenged. Automatic recounts are fine but frivolous lawsuits attempting to litigate a settled vote should be met with harsh penalties from judges. Saturday’s Pennsylvania decision was a good example of the kind of response these cases should receive.

Progressives have long pushed back at election law changes by rightly complaining about attempts at voter suppression. But that leaves them in a reactive mode. What we need now is a major push to fix those aspects of the voting system that would increase the franchise to more people. That will likely involve some tradeoffs with conservatives but major gains are possible if action is taken before we get close to the 2022 midterm election cycle.

The high road going forward is to make voting accessible to as many citizens as possible in ways that are fair and safe. We have serious work to do.

Confronting Institutional Sin: A Church Called Tov

Sociologists like me tend to focus on institutional arrangements and organizational culture when analyzing particular moments. It’s not that we don’t care about individual action, it’s that often those actions are contingent upon these larger issues. So that what seems like an individual action really needs to be examined in its broader context.

Given my preferred mode of analysis, I was particularly excited to recently read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Having read Scot’s earlier book on congregation life, A Fellowship of Differents, as part of a Sunday School class I lead, I knew it would be worthwhile.

I was pleased to find the book much more than “worthwhile”. It spoke to serious problems in some local churches and paid attention to the organizational and cultural forces contributing to those forces right off the top. In doing so, it painted a picture of what is required for “institutional repentance”, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In a blog post six years ago, I wrote the following:

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

Tov begins by acknowledging wrongs the church would often prefer not to discuss. It opens with the Bill Hybels crisis at Willow Creek Community Church, telling the story of what happened at WCCC and examining the variety of factors that allowed the abuse to go on for so long and to be covered up by a culture than minimized wrongdoing, celebrated celebrity, ostracized critics, and denied the truth (even after it was reported in the mainstream press).

McKnight and Barringer elaborate on the nature of toxic church culture by exploring the issues in Harvest Bible Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the story of Jules Woodson and Andy Savage, and others. They write of the myriad ways in which dysfunctional cultures frame narratives, protect insiders, and demonize critics.

The second half of the book refers to the title: Tov means Good. Church cultures should be about the production of good in all segments of church life. Those cultures require empathy, grace, truth, justice, and service. If these last eight chapters of the book were all there was, it would still be a good book about what healthy culture looks like. But it would have likely seemed like just so many platitudes and would certainly fail to be as important of a book.

McKnight and Barringer tell the truth about dysfunctional culture and then work from there to explore how to repair cultures to their intended state. It quickly reminded me of the Restorative Justice class I taught every couple of years. The purpose of restorative justice is to restore things to how they ought to be.

I always started that class with Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu writes that there was danger in simply moving on from the atrocities of apartheid as if nothing happened. There was also danger in Nuremberg style tribunals. The “third way” was to allow people to tell the truth of what happened, for those responsible to admit their role, and to then move toward healing.

This is precisely how Church Called Tov opens. It forces us to see the wrongs that were done, to lament those wrongs, to hear repentance from those responsible, and to make the necessary changes in structures and changes for the Church to be Good.

Since I finished the book, Carl Lentz of Hillsong NY was forced out of his congregation for an affair involving an imagined identity. The stories that followed the initial news have wrestled with celebrity culture, power and control, and even the hip personal of the tattooed pastor in skinny jeans.

The Jerry Fallwell, Jr. story continues to swirl with new and more salacious details. The Southern Baptist Church recently refused to take any meaningful steps in holding accountable those who knew of minister transgressions. The Cardinal McCarrick scandal was apparently known by the Pope but nothing was done.

Telling the truth about dysfunctional institutional structures and organizational cultures is vitally important. It is needed in Higher Education as universities shed trusted faculty members. It is needed in our political circles where power is preeminent and any means necessary thinking is far too common. It is needed in our churches where younger Christians find themselves on the outside for supporting their LGBTQ+ friends. It is needed in city governments and police departments who fail to recognize the myriad ways in which their structures and cultures harm people of color.

If, rather than seeking to defend existing turf, these various institutional structures began by naming those dysfunctional elements of their culture and systems, we’d be in a place where we were more attentive to what is Tov for everybody.

Some thoughts on the Fuller Seminary case

In early October, a district court in California dismissed a lawsuit against Fuller Theological Seminary brought by two students. Both students were dismissed from FTS for being in a same-sex marriage — thereby violating Fuller’s Community Standards. One student, Nathan Brittsan, was about to begin classes online in 2017. He submitted a name change form to indicate that he had recently been married and his admission was rescinded. The other, Joanna Maxon, was already a Fuller student studying online. During her time as a student, she divorced her husband, began a same-sex relationship, and married her partner after Obergefell. Upon submitting a joint tax return supporting her financial aid materials, FTS noticed that she was in a same-sex marriage and dismissed her from the school. The Sexual Standards part of the Community Standards website reads as follows:

Fuller Theological Seminary believes that sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman, and that sexual abstinence is required for the unmarried. The seminary believes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. Consequently, the seminary expects all members of its community–students, faculty, administrators/managers, staff, and trustees–to abstain from what it holds to be unbiblical sexual practices. (emphasis mine)

There are three things I want to unpack in this case. First, I want to explore the legal understandings of religious belief within religious organizations. Second, we need to reframe our understanding of community standards with a decentralized population. Third, we need to see this case from the context of a changing student body.

Inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture

The heart of Fuller’s defense, as expressed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is that Fuller is a religious institution that has a right to protect its religious views. The institution holds that its sexual standards are the only possibility consistent with Scripture and that to force them to operate counter to those is a clear first amendment violation.

Courts have a very long history of not wanting to rule on the validity of particular religious positions. As a result, the challenges have tended to go to whether the organization fully supports the claimed position. One of the matters raised in the case was whether FTS is a religious organization or an educational institution. (Under the Obama DOE Office of Civil Rights, exemptions were granted to institutions sponsored by denominational bodies but not nondenominational bodies like FTS. That interpretation changed early in the Trump administration.)

In the dismissal, the court ruled that FTS was both a religious and educational institution and could set standards accordingly. This may be a win in the short term but I’d argue that its status is more uncertain in the long term.

Council for Christian Colleges and University (CCCU) president Shirley Hoogstra wrote the week after the decision that “Americans cannot rely solely on the courts to defend their right to exercise faith in the public square.” She goes on to argue for the need for legislative responses, advocating (as she has for years) the Fairness for All act in contrast to the Equality Act passed by the House. The former, built on the Utah compromise, would pair nondiscrimination legislation with robust religious freedom protections.

For the record, I think the world of Shirley Hoogstra. I have had the pleasure of knowing nearly every president the CCCU has had (missed the first one). She is by far the best, most forward thinking, leader of the bunch. Her skill at navigating the 2015 Goshen-Union fight — which could easily have destroyed the CCCU altogether — was extremely impressive.

Yet, I don’t think her read on the current situation is taking into consideration other changes coming down the pike. First, if Biden wins and the Democrats take the Senate, the Equality Act is far more likely to become law. Second, since the DOE policy reflects the administration, I’d expect the Title IX rule to revert back to where it was in the Obama administration, making nondenominational religious organizations better articulate their positions — the assumption being that if they decided that marriage was only between a man and a woman, they have the freedom to revisit that.

Additionally, the default assumption of validity of religious views on same-sex marriage may get harder to maintain as time goes on. According to the most recent American Values survey from PRRI, majorities of every religious group except White Evangelicals now support same-sex marriage. That would make future litigation against evangelical educational institutions more likely.

I do agree that a win at the Circuit Court level is not a final victory. Whether these students appeal or not, similar cases will be likely and will draw upon lessons in this case make stronger arguments.

Community Standards and In Loco Parentis

A second aspect of this case that was curious to me was that these two students were taking FTS courses online and lived in Northern California and Texas, far from the Fuller campus in Pasadena.

Fuller is not unusual in this regard. Christian schools across the country would not survive without their online operations. But what does it mean for a student to abide by community standards? Is their behavior reflecting poorly on FTS? Does anybody even know that they are taking Fuller courses?

Christian schools adopted Community Standards for a variety of reasons. Part of this was to draw separation from the broader culture. Another was to provide a safe space to study where students could assume that others are like them. (There is a substantive educational critique to be made here but I’ll let it go.) One can argue (as Becket did) that the students knew the rules when they enrolled and so they should have foreseen their removal from the program.

That Community Standards shape a particular community relates to the old principle of in loco parentis — that the school is providing a trusting environment parents would have provided. The whole notion of in loco parentis changed over 50 years ago when students were determined to be of legal age, but its echoes remain. I’d argue that it’s particularly problematic when you only offer graduate programs to adults.

To me, the steps taken by FTS regarding Brittsan and Maxon were legitimate but selective. How often does an institution act upon a name change form, a tax statement, or a social media post? What is the protection here against capricious actions on the par of the institution?

There are, no doubt, remote students currently enrolled at FTS (and like schools) who are living with — and having sex with — their significant other. But there is no form that asks who else is living at your address. Nobody is perusing Instagram posts to see the lovely hotel room the student and the other shared on their recent vacation.

I’m no legal scholar, but I think that there are major 14th amendment equal protection problems exposed in this case. If Christian educational institutions are going to presume that all students are in harmony with Community Standards Statements, much more oversight and intervention will be required. At least if they are to be able to defend the claim that they aren’t singling out queer students.

“The Call is Coming from Inside the House”

Which brings me to my third observation — Brittsan and Maxon were Christians who desired the educational opportunity FTS provided. Brittsan is a minister in the American Baptist Church, an affirming denomination. He was pursuing his MDiv from FTS to qualify for ordination. Clearly, he would take issue with Fuller’s claim that their sexual policy is the only Scriptural one. I recently read Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmon’s Just Faith, in which he shows his theological and scriptural chops while fully affirming the legitimacy of his sexual orientation and his marriage.

There have been other significant developments since the FTS case was dismissed. One week after the decision, Calvin University’s student paper led with this headline — “I am Calvin University’s first openly gay student body president.” Last week, the Baylor student senate approved a resolution to support the official chartering of a LGBTQ+ group, Gamma Alpha Upsilon (if the administration agrees).

This is not particularly surprising. Similar stories can be found at a variety of Christian educational institutions. LGBTQ+ students are claiming their right to study in the faith based environments that have been offered to them since they were young. They know it can be a difficult road, but research shows that a majority of evangelicals between 18 and 35 supported same-sex marriage in 2018. So their peers are supporting them.

So while leaders like Hoogstra and organizations like the Becket Fund are focused on incursions on religious liberty claims from secular groups, the much larger challenge will be the shifting attitudes on the topic among the very people schools like Fuller hope to serve.

The End of the Evangelical Project?

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I’ve spent much of the last decade exploring an idea that there are new trends within White Evangelicalism that could potentially reframe our future understanding of this subset of the religious world. Specifically, I’ve argued that many younger evangelicals (and some older ones) have abandoned the separatist structures of their youth and replaced them with a new level of cultural engagement.

Over the last two years I have been working on a book project laying out the argument. Since retiring I’ve been able to devote some more time to the project, restructuring the introduction, reordering the chapters, and thinking about next steps in the research.

However, during that time I have been reading four remarkably important books that have upended the entire project. As a result, I’m not exactly sure where my research should go and have put things on “pause” while I try to figure out if a solution is feasible. That is the specific meaning of the title of this post. There is a general meaning I’ll come back to in a bit.

I’ve approached these four books as if we were peeling back layers of an onion. Yes, I’d argue, that is a problem within white evangelicalism as commonly understood. But what if we pulled away that layer and stayed with what was left?

I started with Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God. Andrew and Sam demonstrate that Christian Nationalism isn’t just an issue for white evangelicals but cuts across religious groupings. Believers in Christian Nationalism want a “Christian America” and are uncomfortable with other groups. Those who score high on their Christian Nationalism scale disproportionately support more conservative policies and were much more likely to have supported Trump from 2016 to today. The four categories of CN in their scale are Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, and Rejectors. I was able to run their data (table 1.2) backwards to estimate the percentage of white evangelicals in each category: 39%, 38%, 17%, and 6%. There is some solace in the fact that just under a quarter of white evangelicals in the Baylor Religion Survey did not support Christian Nationalism. Peeling back the Christian Nationalism layer of the onion helps but not much.

The next layer I peeled off addressed issues of Patriarchy, Authoritarianism, and Toxic Masculinity (with some celebrity worship thrown in). Kristin Kobes DuMez’s much anticipated Jesus and John Wayne explores white evangelicalism from a cultural history perspective. Evangelicalism in many ways adopted primary elements of America culture — cowboys, warriors, strong men all — and incorporated them into religious understandings. These in turn sacralized certain definitions of the nation, marriage, the family, and politics. While Kristin would be the first to acknowledge that these patterns don’t describe all evangelicals, they have been a significant factor in both the public’s understandings of evangelicals as well as default markers within the evangelical cultural sphere. So what happens if we peel James Dobson, Oliver North, Mark Driscoll, John Eldridge, and the like away from modern evangelicalism? It’s really hard to say. Those images remain dominant in too many quarters. Just last week a leading figure in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) pretty much channeled Kristin’s entire book in advocating what good evangelical men are to do and be.

The next book release to show up in my mailbox was Robert Jones’ White Too Long. A remarkable combination of history, autobiography, and data analysis, Jones’ book paints a dire picture of the ways in which white supremacy has been imbedded in American theology, not just in the evangelical south but throughout the country. In the data chapter, he contrasts various views of race across major religions traditions (white evangelicals, white mainlines, white Catholics). None of these groups come off well. While white evangelicals score higher on his racism scale (and on individual items that make it up) than do mainlines and Catholics, he says it is more a difference of degree rather than kind. The real contrast on these racial issues is between the religiously affiliated and the nonaffiliated. This pattern holds among those who attend church frequently and across regions. This was underscored by research this week from the Barna group showing that “practicing Christians” were less concerned about issues of race in 2020 than they had been in 2019, even though it’s been a key issue in the public eye since June. In other words, pulling away the layer of racial attitudes as represented in religious groups doesn’t leave us with much.

The fourth book in this cycle was Sarah Posner’s Unholy. A journalistic account of the rise of the Religious Right and its alignment with the policies of Donald Trump, it runs parallel to the arguments in the other three books. She highlights the role of religious television, especially among charismatic evangelists in contributing to a unique view of the world with dark forces at work. Another of the themes that Posner keeps returning to is the linkage between the conservative political establishment and the major evangelical figures over the last fifty years. One of the figures that is just beneath the surface in the rise of the Religious Right is Paul Weyrich, who created the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This frequent interplay and cross-fertilization between conservative politics and white evangelical organizations in unavoidable. Along with the other three books, it shows the ways in which imaging white evangelicalism without nationalism, conservatism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism becomes nearly impossible. One more layer of the onion peeled away.

But maybe there’s something still at the center of the onion, something that can give hope for the future as we look for a new plant to emerge. Many people have responded to critiques like the one I’m making by saying that this doesn’t describe their local fellowship, where people worship together and form community. There is clearly some truth to that but there are challenging signs even within local congregations.

Last month, Katelyn Beaty wrote a persuasive article in Religion News Service (subsequently expanded in an in-depth NPR interview) examining the ways in which the QAnon conspiracies have made inroads into evangelical churches. Pastors find themselves hard pressed to speak against the claims of deep forces controlling the world with Trump as savior. Recent social media posts have suggested pastors may find their positions at risk for attempting to correct these ideas. So even people who regularly attend church and enjoy worship with their friends may be trafficking in ideas very different from the Gospel when it comes to their Facebook feed.

Last week Christianity Today reported on LifeWay research regarding “the state of theology”. Using the standard screen for evangelicals drawn from the Bebbington Quadrilateral, the examined a number of different beliefs. A distrubing finding was that 30% of those categorized as evangelicals did not agree that Jesus was God but that he was simply “a good teacher”.

When I combine the racial, political, and gender ideologies shaping today’s evangelicalism with QAnon conspiracies and theological heresies, I’m not sure that I can argue that there is any core left to the onion. Given that, it is not surprising that Evangelicals for Social Action changed their name to Christians for Social Action.

The implication for my book is clear — I need to rethink my direction and focus less on evangelicals. The broader question about whether evangelicalism survives in any meaningful form remains an open question. I’ll explore more of that in my next post.

About Structural Racism

This morning my friend Tom asked me on Messenger if I could help him get educated on Structural Racism, preferably with quantitative data. The easiest way to explore the concept is with a blog post.

First, some thoughts about prejudice and discrimination. Nearly 70 years ago, sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote that we need to distinguish between racial attitudes and racialized behaviors. He cast this distinction in a useful two by two table. People who were prejudiced and discriminate based on that prejudice he called Bigots (RKM didn’t go for catchy titles). People who were not prejudiced and never discriminated he called Liberals. It’s the two cross cells that are especially interesting. There are people who are prejudiced but don’t act on it: Timid Bigots. Finally, there are people who aren’t at all prejudiced but find themselves discriminating on the basis of race. He called these Reluctant Discriminators.

As an individualist culture, we seem mostly concerned with the Bigot or Timid Bigot categories. We expect people to be respected regardless of their race. (The backlash against being “politically correct” illustrates how we have not moved out of the Timid Bigot category). Reactions to protestors complaining about “racist cops” suggest that we believe the law enforcement officials are just doing their jobs and that we shouldn’t attribute motive to them (although the reports of racist social media posts show up more often than we would like). We should encourage people to rethink their past prejudices and to rise above stereotypes, but that won’t get us where we need to go as a society.

It is the Reluctant Discriminator category we need to be paying attention to in light of the past two weeks. It draws our attention away from individually oriented attitudes or behaviors and causes us to ask where the impetus to discriminate comes from if not personal animus. This is the essence of Structural Racism and why it’s so hard for people to get their head around.

In short, Structural Racism means that the inequalities we see present in society today are imbedded in multiple social structures that perpetuate over time. The outcomes black and latinx people experience are at least partially shaped by those very structures. That’s not to say those outcomes are guaranteed but there are certain probabilities that attach.

Consider this data from the National Center for Children in Poverty. In a longitudinal examination of children who spent half of their childhood (birth to 15) in poverty, they explored the percentage still in poverty at 20, 25, and 35. For white children in poverty, 11% were in poverty at 20 and 25 but only 5% by 30 and 4% were by 35. For black children, 19% were in poverty at 20, 30% at 25, 19% at 30, and 20% at 35. These differences aren’t based upon individual attitudes but upon one’s location in the economic structure and the avenues to success available.

These structural differences are not new. One need go no farther than the Constitution of the United States to see that blacks were officially designated as 3/5 of a person. There is a lot of good literature on the ways in which that kind of inequality requires an ideology of superiority (read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise) but the ideology follows the structure.

Or consider the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. As much as we like to quote the “judged by the content of their character” line, King was very much aware of the nature of structural advantages given to whites that were denied to blacks. The first two-thirds of the Dream speech is about how America had failed to live up to its promises. In his Washington Cathedral sermon in March of 1968, he said the following:

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

A similar argument is made in Mehrsa Baradaran in her The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. She traces the attempts to build community banks in predominantly black inner city neighborhoods and the limitations that were placed on those banking entities. In short, they were limited to being little more than savings and loans where people deposited savings from earnings. At the same time, the federal government was significantly subsidizing white commercial banks to offer mortgage loans to the white middle class rapidly moving to the suburbs. Even if black families could work around the redlining that limited their ability to buy a house, their mortgage would be run through a white bank and the subsequent profits from those investments would leave their community. Black families were significantly limited in their ability to build capital and were considerably more vulnerable to disruption than their white counterparts. In 1963, the average white family had wealth (including home and retirement assets) $120K more that of the average black family (140K to 20K). In 2016, that gap had increased to nearly $800K.

We can consider the same issues in relation to criminal justice. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow argues that mass incarceration is a direct reaction to changes brought by the civil rights movement. Even without endorsing all of Alexander’s argument, we can see structural racism at work. Laws were passed that disproportionately impacted black neighborhoods (crack cocaine, marijuana possession) and politicians railed against fictitious Thugs in the streets (“superpredators”, “black out game”). Police departments deployed their personnel to poorer neighborhoods where they would arrest wrongdoers which would then show them as high crime areas: reinforcing the deployments, creating disincentives for businesses, increasing insurance rates. Differential criminal justice processes result in problems like cash bail. For those with resources, they pay their bail and are released on their own recognizance. For those without — disproportionately black and latinx — they sit in the county jail for a year or more awaiting their trial date. This removes them from jobs and family and helps create a presumption of guilt (they’re in jail, aren’t they?). It’s no surprise that some of those folks will plead guilty to a lesser charge — even if not guilty — to be able to return to some semblance of normality at some point.

(I plan to have more to say about criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to the “Defund the Police” proposals later this week.)

The same patterns can occur in family and schooling. Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts using the NCAA tournament (remember those?) as a metaphor. My argument (which you can read here, here, and here) was that the same schools tend to get the top eight seeds in the tournament over time. Those structural advantages allows them better recruits, more donor money, more television which lead to more recruits, etc. That doesn’t mean that the small school with a 16-seed will never win just that the odds are tremendously against it. Family and Schooling inequities get passed along with those with resources getting more and those without falling further behind. There will be stars that beat the odds but the probabilities remain daunting.

The patterns I’ve been describing aren’t new. We’ve known about them for decades but, until now, haven’t been willing to address the concerns in any way. On Last Week Tonight this past Sunday, John Oliver shared a quote from Dr. Kenneth Clark. Dr. Clark and his wife were the social scientists whose testimony was so influential in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The quote came from testimony Dr. Clark had given to Congress following the urban riots in 1967 and 1968 that were analyzed in the Kerner Commission Report. In his testimony, Clark said this:

I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot…. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.

https://www.chicagoreporter.com/fifty-years-later-what-the-kerner-report-tells-us-about-race-in-chicago-today/

Why should this time be different? Maybe we’ve begun to grasp that there are large issues of inequality that need attention that go far beyond concerns about Bad Apples. What we need now is for a lot of Reluctant Discriminators to push back on the discriminatory structures in which they are imbedded.

It’s a small symbolic step, but when the Navy and Nascar ban the Confederate flag and Lady Antebellum becomes simply Lady A, then maybe, just maybe, we’re beginning to see things with fresh eyes.

I could have said so much more…

PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON New Times San Luis Obispo 6/1/20

I have closely followed the developments of the nearly two weeks since George Floyd’s needless death in Minneapolis. But as I look over the past 11 days, I find myself less analytical and more introspective.

This week Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer wrote about the ways in which his life and successful career had been in part the result of the privilege attached to his race and class status. He tells of how his family had setbacks, but inherited wealth and connections of social capital opened doors that wouldn’t open otherwise.

Meanwhile, Thomas Reese, S.J., wrote this compelling piece for the Religion News Service. Titled, “My generation failed to deal with racism“, he rightly observes that the Boomer generation recognized the inequities of racial inequality and simply chose not to deal with it. Tom, a decade older than me, represents the front edge of the Boomers while I fall right in the middle of the cohort. But I share in his recognition that we have not championed change and now must leave it to others to pick up from our failure.

Yesterday, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota shared on Twitter that two of the officers charged with aiding and abetting in the death of George Floyd were graduates from the sociology program there. Minnesota had a track preparing students for careers in law enforcement.

I am now in my third week of retirement but these three stories have me reflecting over things said and left unsaid in my courses in sociology and criminal justice, in my role as an academic administrator, and as a member of the larger Christian college community.

There are rational reasons why I didn’t say more. I knew that the institutions tended to see sociologists as liberal social justice warriors, so I kept my comments more general and nuanced than what I really thought. I knew the constituency didn’t like social advocacy and so I didn’t push too hard. I bought into what MLK called “the tranquilizing drug of incrementalism“, accepting small steps as important when larger ones were called for. I knew my students were disproportionately from smaller and more rural towns and had strong pro-police sentiments (relying on “war on police” rhetoric).

I did ground my teaching in what we knew about structural inequality. We talked about stop and frisk and police deployment and mass incarceration and the challenges of reentry. I tried to raise the questions about the vast amounts of money we spend on criminal justice and how if we invested just a fraction of those funds into community and economic development our reliance on criminal justice would go down.

But there was so much more to say.

I could have talked more about how the culture of policing leads one to prioritize loyalty to peers and superiors over impact on the citizenry. The reckless assault on Martin Gugio in Buffalo under the auspices of “clearing the streets” and the subsequent protest of the other officers on the task force makes this clear.

I could have talked more about the importance of officer discretion and how an oversimplified view of the law is problematic. The NYPD actions on the Manhattan Bridge that trapped protestors between two groups of officers shouldn’t have happened. Sure, curfew violation is technically a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 3 months in prison, but arresting and prosecuting hundreds of violators is not feasible. The point was to get them off the street — no need to treat them like criminals to be subdued, beaten, or gassed.

I could have spent more time on how default assumptions about “criminal neighborhoods” become self-fulfilling prophecies. We have assumed those neighborhoods are poor and crime-ridden, used that as a justification for lack of economic and social investment, deployed our police force to patrol those areas, and expected them to be areas where police need to show maximum strength. No big surprise that they show disproportionate arrest rates.

I could have said more to administrators about Christian college’s tendency to support a type of model minority myth. We want to diversify our student body and our faculty, but we want “the right kind” of diversity. Rather than adjusting to open doors for underserved populations, we too often expected them first to “fit in” and be like us.

I could have talked more about the churches our students came from and how homogeneous they were both racially and politically. The ways in which being THAT sort of Christian get normalized could have been compassionately challenged.

I could have spent much more time interrogating the political talking points and legislative policies that fly past so many of our students (and faculty). The underlying assumptions needed to be exposed as the manipulative strategies they are.

I could have spoken more about the importance of civil disobedience and the role of protest movements in fomenting social change. Yes, these have the risk of being coopted by those interested in looting and sometimes people get caught up in collective behavior. But it is wrong to assume that protestors are “idle college students” seeking to destroy things. If the past two weeks have told us anything, it is that people are sincere in their concerns (even if they provoke the police).

I could have said more about how the warrior stance of policing become quickly problematic. It encourages an officer to see threat present everywhere and be prepared to act accordingly. We are one month past the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings that told us what happens when we put a group of militarized officers into a strange situation and have people mistreat them.

I could have spent more time encouraging us to see the common humanity present in all social interactions. My restorative justice students get introduced the the African notion of “ubuntu” — the mutuality and interdependence of our shared humanity. It’s the one thing they are still talking about at the end of the course and hopefully for decades after.

In many ways, being a retired sociologist gives me the freedom to worry less about how others will hear my words. I may still offend some, but am outside any institutional confines i may see as limiting.

So now I’ll be saying quite a bit more.

Exploring Evangelical Complexity

As I’ve written before, there is a well-developed cottage industry organized around the question “who are the evangelicals and what are they thinking?”. While I’m pretty sure we aren’t getting closer to any definitive answer, it feels like we’re beginning to grasp why the question remains such a conundrum.

This past week, Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe addressed the variety of answers to the question on the Religion in Public blog. Written in partial response to a recent book edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Masden — Evangelicals, Who They Are Now, Have Been, and Could Be — they attempt to explore the “blind men and the elephant” problem in studying evangelicals.

I read the Noll book last month and found it very helpful in understanding the development of the intellectual history approach to evangelicalism. The book reflects some coherence in that approach while still exploring the challenges inherent therein. Bebbington’s contribution focusing on four theological beliefs has merit but its applicability remains somewhat challenging in today’s marketplace. It is a very good book that involves some significant dialogue among the contributors.

There is real value in locating evangelicalism in a historical vein but there is often a disconnect between that view and how social scientists explore the question. I remember n the mid-80s being allowed to sit in as the token sociologist in a group of historians — including Joel Carpenter and the recently passed Don Dayton — at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The intervening decades have not brought us closer to consensus.

Ryan and Paul explore three different approaches social scientists might use as definitional schemas. First, they look at “organizational attachment” most often measured by the RELTRAD variable in surveys. Second, they try to use theological variables (measured by agreement with some standard (although largely inadequate IHMO — see my previous post) survey formulations from respectable polling groups. Examining some data, they do not find major differences between evangelical and non-evangelical Christians. Their third approach focuses on the “born-again” identification. While those in evangelicals denominations are more likely to claim the identity than mainline denominations (but only marginally different from Black Protestants), one is left to wonder what exactly that means. In my years as an administrator in Christian Colleges, I found I had to prep prospective faculty from non-evangelical traditions. They had deep faith commitments but didn’t use the born-again language search committees wanted to hear.

Early in their blog post, they share the following insight:

Perhaps sadly, the citizenry does not conform to consistency and academic rules of classification, which leads to some strange combinations of religious attributes. That is, religion is not like a matryoshka doll.

The same day Ryan and Paul wrote their piece, Peter Wehner wrote a reflection on the Noll book for Cardus — I think they landed on twitter within minutes of each other. Peter quickly moves from contemporary politics to Bebbington and then to scripture. He writes of people whose lives were transformed by the Gospel which then gave them the motivation to address power and injustice. Instead we see faith used as a means to gain power and control over others. Yet today:

We are much more tribal than we care to confess, and far too quick to manipulate faith to support our worldly desires. Rather than having our sensibilities shaped by the ethic of Jesus, too many of us use Christianity to validate our preexisting attitudes, what we already believe, what we already want to do.

He then discusses Michele Margolis’ From Politics to the Pews which suggests that we are political first and religious second.

The difficulty in all of these approaches is that we still know far too little about what is happening in people’s minds when they are making decisions as evangelicals. Are they, in fact, acting as evangelicals or, as Peter suggests, are they simply validating prior positions with religious language. (There’s been a debate this weekend on whether abortion is a motivating force in evangelical voting or a rationalization covering other policy preferences).

Because these issues are so multidimensional, it becomes very difficult to make sense of causal order, intervening variables, and triggering factors. In a different series of posts this weekend, Ryan Burge was exploring the relationship between partisan ideology and denominational affiliation (in response to the “religious left” twitter discussions). He showed that there were very few religious traditions in which liberals outnumber conservatives, one of which was the United Church of Christ. Most show more of a mixed pattern. Then there are those like the Southern Baptist Convention was are more heavily on the politically conservative end of the scale.

But that made me think about how hard it is to unpack that descriptive data. I asked myself, where are UCC congregations located? So I went to my trustworthy source, The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), and looked at the geographic distributions according to the 2010 congregations survey. What I found was that UCC congregations predominate in the Northeast and Midwest. I’ll let the reader figure out where the Southern Baptist congregation are.

If you consider what the infamous Blue and Red State maps look like, you’ll see the ways in which these maps would overlay. So are UCC folks politically liberal or do they reflect the dominant values of their region. By the way, the UMC — my own denomination — shows up in Ryan’s data as 25% liberal, 25% moderate, and 50% conservative. The congregational map for the UMC is dominant in the Eastern half of the US but more evenly distributed North and South. (I also looked at these maps by adherents per 1,000 population but it didn’t change much).

One could do the same analysis by age distribution, social class characteristics, or educational level. In any case, it’s very difficult to figure out where “evangelical” fits in the myriad factors influencing political identity and voting behavior.

I don’t have an answer, unfortunately. I simply keep wrestling with the gaps in our theoretical formulations and trying to figure out whether any classification system will give us a handle on this ever-puzzling phenomenon.

The Bible and Survey Questions

I really like the work of the Pew Research Center. Readers of this blog know that I have often drawn out some of their research for further comment about religion and contemporary society (as I did earlier this month). Sometimes, however, they ask questions that make me wonder what they were assuming about their respondents.

Yesterday, my history colleague Mark Edwards shared a Pew “Factank” article titled “Half of Americans say Bible should influence U.S. laws..”. This was a snapshot from the same March survey that was the basis for my above mentioned post. Here’s the relevant data:

The survey found that Americans were split on the question of whether the Bible should influence laws but that white evangelicals and Black protestants were much more in favor. Furthermore, the data suggests that majorities of both groups suggested that the Bible should be more persuasive than the will of the people.

So what does this data tell us? Without follow-up questions, it’s not clear what respondents were thinking. Is this about supporting “Biblical marriage”? Is it about prophetic passages instructing care for the poor, widowed, and orphaned? Maybe it’s a reference to Matthew 25 and “the least of these”. Or perhaps it is related to proof texting certain passages that seem to support certain policy concerns about welfare dependency.

Are these opinions held by people who regularly read the Bible (and thereby have something specific in mind) or is this simply capturing a naive “Bible is good” sentiment?

To be fair to Pew, I’m being pretty picky here. I’m right at the stage of my research design course where my student research groups are converting their research questions into actual survey questions. I’ve been pushing them to examine their assumptions and ask the question necessary to make sense of the data that they will eventually get.

Yet I wonder if the Bible and law question doesn’t force a frame into which the respondents fit their opinions. If you asked, “what should be the source of our laws?” would the Bible show up as a top response? Why not Lockean philosophy or enlightenment social contract theory?

Asking questions about the Bible is hard, particularly because so much is left to individual interpretation (and Pew’s prior work on Biblical literacy shows how limited those interpretations might be!). One of the common questions about the Bible is that used by Gallup. Respondents are given the option of seeing the Bible as the literal word of God, the inspired but not literal word of God, or an ancient book of fables (highlighting mine).

Even here, we don’t really know what respondents mean by literal or inspired. Some have asked questions about degrees of error or conflict in the scripture. Yet even then, we don’t really get at how individuals are using the Bible in their decision making (if at all).

I once experimented with a question that asked people what parts of the scripture they were most likely to read in their daily devotions using broad categories of history, psalms and proverbs, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation. and the like. In my most recent project surveying evangelical clergy, I asked questions about their method of biblical interpretation.

Sam Perry recently explored the way different Bible translation versions related to assumptions about gender roles in the family and in the church. His comments near the end of his article do a nice job of summarizing a broader and richer approach to the Bible than we normally see:

While American sociologists are well aware of the Bible’s importance to understanding Americans’ beliefs, values, and behavior, I have advocated a more critical approach to the Bible’s content, one that understands it as a product of ideology and not merely a producer or platform. 

If we really want to understand how Americans view the Bible and its role in the broader society, we simply have to ask better and more in-depth questions.

To my Bernie-supporting students

Dear current, recent, and long-ago students of mine;

I have watched you on social media over the last twelve months advocating effectively for Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee who would take the fight to Donald Trump in the 2020 campaign. Your passion for a shift away from politics as usual is commendable and your impatience with the status quo gives me hope.

And yet, here we are. Yesterday, Senator Sanders made what was likely the inevitable decision to suspend his 2020 presidential campaign.

This is certainly hard to deal with. The direct affront to such an optimistic vision easily leads to a “pox on both your houses” moment. The temptation to sit out the 2020 election is understandable. But it must be resisted.

I have a long history of processing such disillusionment. I have voted in enough elections over my career to know how these emotions play out. Especially since my favored candidate has lost far more often than won.

Even though the 26th Amendment passed in 1971 allowing 18-year old’s the right to vote, my own 18th birthday fell 11 days after the 1972 election. So my first vote was cast for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I was excited about Carter’s energy and enthusiasm. But he really had no experience at the federal level and had relied too much on his “Georgia mafia.” If it had been a period of quiet in American society he might have been okay, but economic downturn and the Iran hostage crisis rendered him over his head.

In 1980, it was clear that Reagan was going to handily beat Carter. In that year, I cast the only vote I’ve ever made for a third party candidate, supporting John Anderson’s independent run. I thought that if enough people voted for Anderson, it might not change the outcome but it might just create legitimacy for third party efforts in presidential campaigns. It didn’t.

Reagan’s governing philosophy (such as it was) was anathema to a sociology PhD student in 1981. He was working hard to minimize issues of inequality and to handcuff government’s ability to get anything done. I tried to remain hopeful but it was hard work.

In 1984, I was intrigued by the young visionary Senator from Colorado, Gary Hart. He was brilliant and had long-range vision. He dealt with ideas that others hadn’t even realized were topics of consideration. It was a good run but he was eventually overwhelmed by the establishment candidate who had been Carter’s vice president four years earlier, Walter Mondale. I voted for Mondale in ’84 knowing that he was going to lose (but not thinking he would lose as badly as he did).

The 1988 election gave us the possibility of an open race. The Reagan years were over and GHW Bush was running. Gary Hart was the presumed front-runner on the Democratic side and he was stronger than in ’84. And then his candidacy imploded in the Donna Rice allegations. Jesse Jackson ran for president in the Democratic Primary and he got my vote. The nomination eventually went to Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, who had strong technical skills but no charisma. That he made GHW look compassionate was a real feat. But I voted for Dukakis anyway because I thought we needed a pragmatist/technocrat following the free-wheeling years of the Reagan Administration.

In 1992, Bill Clinton emerged as a surprising front-runner in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misbehavior, assault, and potential rape. There was something of a generational change underway and a younger charismatic candidate following GHW’s handling of a serious recession coupled with a serious third-party run by wealthy anti-free-trader Ross Perot, made him president. That marked the second political win of my voting career. Clinton had been a major force in the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate/conservative Democrats who were attempting to combine a pro-business orientation with a social safety net. When the Gingrich revolution flipped the House in 1994, Clinton tacked to the right in order to govern. The 1996 election is hardly worth mentioning. Senator Bob Dole, a tower of Republican leadership, was given the nomination but it was clear that Clinton’s re-election was never in doubt. The Lewinsky scandal and impeachment followed on the heels of the election which cast real doubt on the Democrats’ ability to retain the White House.

In the 2000 Democratic primary, I was enamored with New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. He was progressive, having opposed Clinton’s welfare reform act. But his campaign never took off and vice president Al Gore took every primary contest. Gore was in a tough spot, inheriting Clinton’s policies while not quite being able to distance himself from Clinton’s moral failure. Texas governor George W. Bush, GHW’s son, won the Republican primary as a “compassionate conservative” (those were the days!). I supported Gore and saw the election contest stretch into early December when the Supreme Court ruled against a state-wide recount in Florida, giving Bush the election.

While Bush had tremendous popular support after 9/11 (as his father had after the first Iraq was), his decision to invade Iraq and interest in privatizing social security were liabilities. There were a number of strong candidates in the 2004 Democratic primary field (it was the year of the Howard Dean “scream“). Senator John Edwards got my attention with a consistent message about “two Americas” where some people are doing great and others are greatly suffering. It was a powerful message but he eventually lost the nomination to Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts and went on to become Kerry’s running mate. Kerry’s message wasn’t as strong and he was attacked unfairly by the Republican establishment and Bush was reelected. It was at the 2004 Democratic Convention that Barack Obama gave his famous “no red and blue America” speech, which placed him in the national spotlight.

The 2008 Democratic primary saw Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards as the major players. Edwards’ message hadn’t developed since four years earlier and he was sidelined by lots of hypocrisy issues (which became really serious after the campaign ended when his affair become public). As the race settled between Obama and Clinton, I continued to support Obama and was overjoyed when he went on to beat John McCain in November (in the midst of economic disruption). The 2012 race saw Obama-Biden ticket continue strong eventually overcoming the Romney-Ryan ticket in spite of major efforts by those on the right to find scandals where there weren’t any.

In the 2016 Democratic Primary, I was originally pulling for Martin O’Malley. He had been the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore. He brought a strong pragmatic governance streak but struggled to overcome some tough–on-crime stances he’d taken and to stand out in an unusual field. The presence of Hillary Clinton as the first female candidate and Bernie Sanders as the progressive candidate made O’Malley seem insignificant. I wound up supporting Clinton in spite of Sanders’ strong showing. In retrospect, there are many mistakes Clinton made in campaigning, in handling (not handling) the crises surrounding her, and in not building bridges to younger voters. And so, Trump gets elected in the second narrowest presidential election in recent memory.

That brings us to 2020. With such a large cast of candidates running there were many significant candidates to consider. While people like Harris and Klobuchar had my attention very early, that gave way to vacillating between Buttigieg and Warren. This is an example of my pragmatic streak coming forth. I want a president who knows how to govern and can make the checks and balances of our system work the way they are supposed to. Bernie Sanders’ analysis of contemporary issues was strong and largely correct, but the prognosis for how to implement those ideas seemed lacking to me.

So eventually, we wind up back in the situation where the former vice president becomes the presumptive nominee of the party. To be fair, the record for vice presidents running for president turns out to be one win and two losses. So why do people look to vice presidents as potential candidates? Some of that has to do with name recognition. People feel more secure with what they see as a known quantity. Some has to do with the ability to leverage past relationships in government and foreign policy for future benefit. One other factor to consider is the tendency for the modern electorate (especially those on social media) to play pundit roles, picking candidates based upon electoral strategy rather than governing ability.

To be sure, former vice president Biden has taken some shaky positions at various points over his career. We wish that he had been more careful in the way his desire for “getting things done” caused him to advocate positions that differed from a consistently principled stand. The sexual abuse allegation from 1993 is very troubling and requires a more forthright response. His tendency to get his points mangled is problematic as a campaigner.

It is also true that Bernie Sanders has significantly moved “the Overton window” over the last five years. While candidates aren’t talking medicare-for-all, there is more attention paid to health inequality than ever before. While other candidates may not attack “millionaires and billionaires” with the same fervor, economic inequality is on the table. The existential threat of climate change remains before us.

If there’s a consistent pattern throughout my voting history, it is this: I tend to be an idealist when it comes to primary elections and a pragmatist when it comes to the general. This is because the election isn’t the end of the process. Come January, the president has to be ready to govern.

In the 1972 movie The Candidate, Robert Redford upsets an incumbent senator from California. In the last scene of the movie, Redford’s character turns to his campaign manager and plaintively asks, “What do we do now?

This is the question that wasn’t asked in January of 2017. It’s the question that hasn’t been asked throughout this pandemic. What we have instead is continual ideological campaigning. I honestly don’t believe that our governmental structures can sustain four more years of this administration’s approach to governing.

However you’re feeling today, you need to vote in November.

Yours always,

John